Helium Shortage Could Threaten Houston’s Turkey Day Parade

These are indeed tough economic times, but inflation is not something that should ordinarily affect Houston’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade. But this year towering inflatable balloons such as Nemo or Papa Smurf might not manage to get airborne next week because of a persistent worldwide shortage of helium. The gas shortage has organizers of the city’s 63rd Annual Holiday Parade scrambling to find enough suppliers to fill up their diverse balloons that have become a trademark of the parade. “We’ve secured helium to meet some of our parade needs, and we are working to secure more,” Kim Stoilis, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Festival Foundation, said in an email Wednesday. “We’re excited about this holiday tradition and our parade director assures me that all of our balloons will be flying high on Thanksgiving morning.” But the full impact of the helium shortage on the parade remains unclear. Parade organizers declined to specify how much more helium is needed or whether the shortage would translate into fewer floats along this year’s parade route. “Due to the severe shortage of helium and our continuing negotiations to procure the resource we’d rather not discuss specifics,” Stoilis stated in the email.

Tradition since 1949

Since it began in 1949 with Santa’s arrival at Union Station and his colorful sleigh ride to the downtown Foley’s store, the holiday parade has grown to include thousands of spectators lining the streets and millions more watching the festivities on live TV. This year’s parade begins at 9 a.m. Nov. 22 at Texas Avenue and Crawford Street. A federal official attributed the helium shortage to the economic downturn over the past year, coupled with less overseas production of the lighter-than-air gas, which is produced as a by-product of natural gas extraction.

Supply privatized

The Bureau of Land Management, which maintains much of the nation’s helium supply, held about 43 billion cubic feet (bcf) of helium in 1960, but today holds only 13 bcf because the nation’s supply has been privatized, said Joseph Peterson, assistant field manager of field resources at the bureau’s Amarillo office. Under the 1996 Helium Privatization Act, the land management agency has been charged with selling off the remaining supply of helium on federal lands as private industry and overseas production plants take over the role of helium extraction, he said. But today, Peterson said, the worldwide supply of helium has not kept pace with the demand. “The past few years (the shortage) has been crucial because everyone wants the helium for their parades,” he said. “In the past there have been a couple of suppliers that were able to meet that demand. There is still some helium available but there may not be a lot of balloons in this year’s parades (nationwide).”

Balloons rationed

The helium shortage also has impacted at least one Houston balloon store, which has had to ration balloons to its customers. “Normally in a slow week we use up eight helium tanks,” said Aaron Graber, manager of Party City on the Southwest Freeway. “On busy weeks we would use upwards of 15 or more.” Facing the reduced helium supply, he said, “We were rationing customers to a dozen or two dozen balloons, depending on pre-orders.” The situation has improved in recent weeks, though, since the store’s helium supplier has made more of the mineral gas available, Graber said.

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